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Corporate Europe Observer

Business Responses to Seattle

"The business community, uncharacteristically silent for much of the week, was clearly unhappy... My feeling is that, collectively, you thought that to intervene would be to convince the world of what the more extreme representatives of civil society were saying: that business interest amounted to proof positive that the WTO is a capitalist plot."

           — European Trade Commissioner, Pascal Lamy about Seattle [1]

Business kept a low public profile during the WTO summit in Seattle and even more so in the months after, despite their deep disappointment. Those business groupings that have spoken out have done their best to downplay the impacts of the failed WTO Ministerial. While waiting for the troubled waters to get quieter, business is developing new strategies against the movements criticising neoliberal globalisation. Think tanks and the PR industry have stepped in to play a major role in the first months of post-Seattle corporate politics.

While US industry groups attacked President Clinton for the Seattle "PR disaster," [2] European business continues to build its cosy relations with the European Commission. Straight after Seattle, George Jacobs, President of the European employers confederation, UNICE, praised Commissioner Lamy for his "leadership role to build bridges between different WTO member views and ensure transparency by involving representatives of civil society in the EU delegation." [3] UNICE, which has seven working groups on the WTO, continues to work in tandem with the EC to garner support for a WTO Millennium Round. Nothing less than a comprehensive round, including new issues like investment and government procurement, is acceptable to UNICE, stating that "a limited package is not worth it for European business." [4]

In contrast to UNICE, the International Chamber of Commerce's (ICC) post-Seattle strategy remains opposed to addressing environment and labour issues in the WTO. [5] The ICC has been the international business group responding most prominently after Seattle, vehemently downplaying the importance of the failed summit. The groupīs claims that the failed Ministerial has not brought trade liberalisation to a halt. Emphasising that trade negotiations in the past have often survived temporary setbacks, the ICC believes that a comprehensive round is still possible, "as negotiations resume next year in a more serene atmosphere in Geneva." [6] The ICC wants business to take a lead in convincing public opinion to support trade liberalisation and sees a role for itself in the offensive against WTO critics, who they describe as "highly organised and sophisticated groups that for many different reasons are hostile to trade." [7]

Far more conciliatory were the post-Seattle sound-bytes coming out of the World Economic Forum [8] in January. From the Davos podium, influential leaders and prominent speakers expressed their understanding for the concerns of WTO critics and argued for reforms and more inclusive forms of 'global governance'.

The European Policy Centre, an influential Brussels-based think tank, provided a forum for industry to debate and reflect on their failings in Seattle. [9] During a number of meetings for EPC members, the Seattle events were evaluated and plans were made to bring the Millennium Round back on track. According to Craig Burchell, from Philips and also chairing the EPC's WTO Forum, the anti-WTO campaigns are ignorant and media exaggerates their importance. [10] The EPC's main advice to the corporate world is to improve communication strategies. Corporations should "take a more proactive position in relation to trade liberalisation" and find better ways of "dealing with the new breed of NGOs." [11] The EPC recommends business to "provide funding" for organising public debates to improve public perception of globalisation and transnational corporations and to "curb the activities of extremist NGOs." [12] That happens to be exactly the kind of services offered by the European Policy Centre, which has already grown out to be one of the most active corporate think-tanks currently operating in Brussels.

The public affairs industry is also eager to assist in communicating the corporate trade and investment agenda. Global PR giant, Edelman, offers to assist corporations with "EU and WTO Public Affairs, Media Relations and Crisis Preparedness." [13] Washington-based PR company Black, Kelly, Scruggs & Healy recently sent its corporate clients a "Guide to the Seattle Meltdown: A Compendium of Activists at the WTO Ministerial." [14] In an accompanying letter, the companies managing director warns against the "potential ability of the emerging coalition of these groups to seriously impact broader, longer-term corporate interests." The director ends his introduction of the report, that describes 48 WTO-critical groups, with advertising his company's capability "to defend clients against attacks" from these groups. [15]


1. Speech at the European Institute, Washington, 17 February 2000. | Back to Text |

2. According to Harry L Freeman (Coalition of Service Industries) Clinton had not been vocal enough in his support for trade liberalisation. "US Business See Ministerial as a Setback for Trade Liberalisation", International Trade Reporter, 9 December 1999. | Back to Text |

3. UNICE press release, George Jacobs, UNICE President, "UNICE Reacts on WTO Seattle Deadlock: No Results Better Than Bad Result", Brussels, 7 December 1999. | Back to Text |

4. Ibid. | Back to Text |

5. Drawing lessons from the lost battle around the Multilateral Agreement on Investment (MAI), UNICE is willing to accept social and environmental clauses in the WTO in the hope to get NGOs to agree on a WTO Millennium Round. See "The WTO Millennium Bug", CEObserver Issue 4, June 1999. | Back to Text |

6. ICC President Adnan Kassar, "Seattle setback will not hit trade liberalisation", The Hindu Business Line, 10 December 1999. | Back to Text |

7. See also "Davos 2000: 'New Beginnings' for Global Capitalism?" in this issue. | Back to Text |

8. See also CEObserver, Issues 2 and 3. | Back to Text |

9. "They know how to exploit the internet to coordinate their lobbying and are adept at winning media attention."  | Back to Text |

10. A personal report on the Seattle Ministerial by Craig Burchell (Senior Trade Representative of Philips Electronics, and Chairman of the EPC's WTO Forum): "The Seattle Ministerial: What Happened", 30 Nov - 3 Dec 1999. N.B. In 1997, when Philips CEO Jan Timmer was TABD EU chair, his sherpa, Craig Burchell, was co-chair of the TABD Steering Committee.  | Back to Text |

11. Ibid.  | Back to Text |

12. Stanley Crossick, EPC Chairman, "Seattle: The Business Fall-Out", 23 December 1999.  | Back to Text |

13. Edelman Europe advertisement in the European Voice, 24 February - 1 March 2000, page 26.  | Back to Text |

14. This guide by Black, Kelly, Scruggs & Healy, cover letter dated January 14 2000 was leaked to activists and posted on the "N30" anti-WTO email list. The report seems the result of a few hours of visiting websites of a fairly random selection of groups that campaigned against the WTO Millennium Round.  | Back to Text |

15. Ibid.  | Back to Text |

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